A journey into the heart of the paranoid strain of American politics.
Most hands went up. “I’ve been kicking mine, amazing it still works!” someone called out from the back. Everyone chuckled.
How many of you are Fox News fanatics? Every hand but mine went up. I quickly raised mine.
How many are Glenn Beck groupies? The hands stayed up. “I prefer ‘Glenn Beck junkie’,” someone called out.
Another blonde in her fifties, dressed in a cropped corduroy blazer and jeans, took the microphone; the same woman with whom I bonded over our shared faux-love for Ayn Rand. “My name is Christy and I am a recovering liberal,” she announced. In the crowd, necks craned, eyes narrowed, some gasped, others sighed piteously, shaking their heads. Christy had been born into a union family and the Democrats were for the little guys, she said, and like everyone else in her family she had adopted the liberal orthodoxy without giving it much thought. That is, until the day her brother-in-law dared her to listen to Rush Limbaugh. At first, she said, she had been aghast and appalled at the things Rush said and then one day something clicked and she was no longer aghast and appalled. These days Christy was proudly pro-waterboarding and anti-universal health care. And while some of her best friends were liberals, she hadn’t talked to them in a while. The crowd laughed.
For the next 10 minutes, Christy delivered a mini-seminar entitled ‘How to talk to a Liberal.’ She told us it’s best not to back up your arguments with ‘I heard it on Rush or Glenn Beck,’ as liberals hate those shows. No, she declared, you must back up your arguments with experts that liberals respect: a college professor or a think tank like The Heritage Foundation—they have lots of smart guys. Liberals love smart guys. Or The New York Times , even if the truth is always buried in the back pages. Liberals, Christy assured the crowd, LOVE The New York Times .
“Terrorists!” yelled someone from the back. Everyone smiled. This was, apparently, Tea Party humor. My inner Volvo-driving latte was frothing over with rage. Veins of righteous anger bulged in my neck. Steady, man, don’t give yourself away. Must. Not. Go. Liberal Hulk.
Mercifully, Christy handed the mic over to Rick Lacy, who reminded me of my fifth grade math teacher: low-key, exacting and unflappable. Lacy was all about the math. Strength is in numbers, he said. Lacy was there to explain how to run for the local and state committees that select the candidates that run for Republican office. The plan was to take back the Republican Party inch-by-inch, packing elections with Tea Party-approved candidates, starting at the local level and working its way up through the state level and ultimately the federal level. Getting on committees isn’t hard, said Lacy, it’s just that most people don’t know how to go about it, and the Republican Party elders prefer it that way. But that was gonna change.
“The Republican Party needs an enema,” shouted one man in the crowd. Lacy nodded; he was just the man to do it.
“The Democratic party has never been more left!” shouted another.
At that point they opened it up to take questions from the audience. Mostly, there was a lot of venting.
“They call us teabaggers and that’s a pejorative term, you know,” said one man. Most everyone nodded. If for nothing else, the Tea Party movement will go down into history for having clued a lot of people of a certain age in to the slang term for a certain sexual act.
“History will look back and ask how that person, with that name and that background and those questionable associations ever got elected president,” said another party-goer.
“They call us racist because we oppose the president’s policies,” added the guy who pointed out that ‘teabagger’ was a bad word.
“They call us radicals but our core belief is the Constitution,” said yet another white, pension-aged male. “We are only as radical as the Founding Fathers!”
As the meeting wound down, I helped myself to a couple of tasty brownies from the snack table and slipped out the back door. There were, however, a few questions I wish I would have broken out of fly-on-the-wall mode and asked: Where was all this righteous anger about careless government spending when the last administration was merrily handing out $600 billion in tax cuts for the super-rich that sent the deficit skyrocketing? Where was all this fear of big government and Constitutional watch-dogging when the Patriot Act was passed and the government started monitoring every American citizen’s phone calls and emails and web traffic? Where was the rage when President George W. Bush reserved the right to arrest any American at any time for any reason and hold him or her without charge indefinitely, when habeas corpus was suspended, when torturing prisoners became just how we roll, and when hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars were dumped into the bottomless money pit of two wars? Where were the Tea Parties when all that was going on?
Just to be clear: The Tea Partiers I met aren’t bad people, they are not overtly racist, and they sincerely believe there is something patriotic in their kicking-and-screaming resistance to the Obama agenda. Therein lies the appeal, because we can all agree we are being screwed. It’s the question of who is doing the screwing that breaks us off into different tribes. I tend to blame the corporate oligarchy, Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. The Tea Party is pretty sure it’s ACORN.
Still, in their own way they are inclusive, the big tent party of American anger. The incoherence of that anger only broadens its appeal—like Obama’s “change” mantra in reverse, it’s a mirrorball that can reflect whatever you project onto it. But when you get right down to it, the Tea Party crowd is just a lot of embittered old white people that watch too much Fox News. They take great comfort in the easy moral narratives the network peddles: that it’s us versus them, there are good guys and there are bad guys and never the twain shall meet, that America is special and can do whatever the fuck it wants because God is on our side. They feed on the manufactured outrage and non-troversey that every news cycle seems to bring because it dovetails nicely with the sublimated anger and fear of their own lives. They are at war and have been for years, they are overextended and under water, they are certain the game is being rigged against them and the terrorists are holding a gun to their heads. For them, the 2008 presidential election still isn’t over—not by a long shot. ■
Jonathan Valania is the editor- in-chief of Phawker.com.
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It was informative, tame, well-enough attended and sad.
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide